Financial Reality Fair Gives Students a Real-World Look at Budgeting Options

Never mind the cold temperatures and the snowstorm moving north up the I-5 corridor; neither bad weather nor even wild horses could have kept River Ridge High School students away from the Northwest Credit Union Foundation’s Financial Reality Fair in Olympia last week.

The live budgeting challenge was presented as part of the Northwest Credit Union Association’s Credit Union Day at the Capitol, where more than 110 credit union advocates messaged legislators about the credit union difference. That message also came to life in the Reality Fair tent, where students gathered in two sessions.

“We bring students into this, and you know, it really is a reality check for them,” said Steve Wilder, the NWCUF’s board chair. “They’re given a scenario for what their life could be like when they’ve gotten out of school — maybe it’s out of high school, maybe it’s out of college. The scenario gives them a job, maybe even a family, and then they’re sent to all these different stations to buy housing, get a car, get a pet — even get a tattoo, if that’s what they want. It’s all about choices that they’re going to make as they get out of school and get on with life.”

Kim Vu, the Foundation’s executive director, got things started: “Are you prepared for what’s going to happen here?” she asked students. “Yeah? Awesome!” Vu explained the program’s accounting procedures, and then dispatched students to visit with credit union and community volunteers who posed as merchants selling necessities and luxuries.

“Right here for cellular service,” said volunteer Stephen Norris as student Ellen Scott stepped up to his table. “We’re going to get that ‘Simply Everything’ plan for $109.99, right?” he asked, putting the hard sell on Scott and her classmates.

“I try to make it as realistic as possible,” said Norris, who actually works as the enterprise manager for Juma Ventures, a nonprofit youth-development organization that provides jobs for low-income students so they can save for college. “I just want the young folks to realize how tough it is to fit that into your budget.”

“I do this because I think it’s a great exercise for young people to come and just get a feel for what it’s going to be like when they’re out on their own and trying to juggle their money,” said Cathy Brorson, an outreach coordinator at Kitsap Credit Union who posed as a clothing vendor. “It’s very eye-opening for them, and they realize it’s a little bit harder than it looks.”

Brorson also used the opportunity to tell students about the importance of “dressing for success.” As you enter the work world, she said, “Remember that people are watching you all the time, so you want to put your best foot forward.”

Student Ellen Scott conceded that her Reality Fair experience was “easy” compared to the challenges she will face after graduation. She was assigned a career as a psychologist for the exercise, but plans to be a cosmetologist.

“I learned how expensive everything will be in the future and how you will have to budget a lot, especially if you don’t make as much as a psychologist does,” she said.

In addition to figuring out their real-world spending scenarios, students also got a chance to meet Washington state Rep. Sharon Tamiko Santos (D-37), who chairs the House Education Committee. She talked about the importance of financial literacy and about how being financially savvy can have a huge impact on students’ adult lives.

That message apparently got through. By the time the Reality Fair was over, 78 percent of the students said they understood the options available to them for reducing or managing debt – an increase of 35 percent from a pre-event survey – and 98 percent said they understood the importance of credit scores and regular savings habits.

Teachers at River Ridge High liked what they heard, too.

“I wanted to let you know how very valuable this was for my students. They kept talking Friday about what they had done and learned, which was terrific,” said teacher Mary Ketchem. “The quick way they worked through this (simulation) is far superior to things I have tried in my classroom. Thank you so very much for creating this.”                                            

Vu says she plans to repeat the effort in 2014 and beyond.

“With the launch of the latest version of our Financial Reality Fair, we are very much looking forward to having credit unions partner with the Foundation to co-host fairs throughout the Northwest for high schools in their local communities, “ Vu said.

For more information about the NWCUF’s Financial Reality Fair program — or any of its financial education nonprofit partners — visit the Foundation’s website.


Questions? Contact Lynn Heider, 503.350.2225 or

Posted in Events.